As mentioned in this post, a few weeks back I met Robert Buratti of Buratti Fine Arts when I visited an exhibition of Aleister Crowley’s art. My immediate impression of Robert was of a nice chap, full of intelligence, sensitivity and deep knowledge of both Art and the Esoteric. He displays these qualities admirably in this interview he kindly gave MOTO. Thanks, Robert
MOTO: Robert thanks very much for the interview. Tell us first, about the Crowley exhibition. Can you describe it a little, please?
RB: Essentially “The Nightmare Paintings: Aleister Crowley” comprises thirteen original works created by Aleister Crowley between 1920 and 1922, during his time in Sicily. At this time he was establishing the infamous “Abbey of Thelema”, and the resulting works are an amazingly insightful look into his state of mind at the time. The works were previously shown at the Pomidou Centre and Palais de Tokyo, Paris in 2008.
MOTO: I understand you are the driving force behind the exhibition? What motivated you to create it, and how hard was it organise?
RB: The motivation came from a personal interest in Crowley, Thelema and the whole genre of esoteric and occult art. Part of the original aim behind opening my own gallery was to enable me to show the kind of artwork which most commercial galleries overlook. I believe that the genre of occult art is a very important one, and deserves more mainstream attention.
My work as an art dealer puts me in touch with a range of collectors and museums around the world, and along the way I tend to get my hands on some really amazing and rare artwork and ephemera. The difficulty in organising “The Nightmare Paintings” came mainly from the geographic isolation of Perth itself, and meant multiple trips to Europe and many midnight phone calls to negotiate and coordinate the details. I can see why these kinds of exhibitions rarely come to Australia given the expense and time involved, but I’m committed to bringing more shows like this to the country. The public response to “The Nightmare Paintings” has been exceptional, and reinforces my belief that it’s an important mission to continue.
MOTO: And the title, “The Nightmare Paintings”- where does that originate?
RB: It’s a direct reference to the central temple room of the Abbey of Thelema known as the “Chamber of Nightmares”. Given that these works were created in that space at such a key time, I felt it appropriate to re-label the works under this banner. It was also a case of my marketing head needing a strong branding concept to pull the messaging and placement of the show together. The title seems to have stuck now, and has itself sparked a lot of curiosity from the public and media.
MOTO: With Crowley of course, we are looking at what may be called ‘esoteric’ or ‘occult’ art. There was a loose tradition of esoteric art, or at least non-conformist spiritual art, in the west before Crowley, for example, Blake. And contemporaries to Crowley, such as Duchamp, were influenced in some measure by occultism. But how much did Crowley fit into such a ‘tradition’ and how much did he radicalise and change it, like he did with western magic?
RB: This is a really interesting question and sits at the crux of the argument for Crowley’s artwork as part of a wider art history. For years his work has been discarded as unimportant due to the difficulty of locating it within the various period movements of art history. In fairness, this task was never really properly attempted, and most researchers were either interested in art or magick, but not both, so they failed to align the two concepts. I disagree vehemently that art critics can truly understand and dissect occult art without having any practical experience of the concepts contained. Studying Crowley’s art without also studying Crowley’s magick is like studying music by reading notation and never hearing the music played.
The trick is looking to the intent of the work itself, and also to Crowley’s influences at the time of creating it. When reading Crowley’s diaries from the Cefalu period, we see clear mentions of Paul Gauguin and other artists who were specifically interested in the concept of “artist as prophet” and art as a spiritual practice.
On the whole, the “tradition” of esoteric and occult art is in flux. Most writers still debate on exactly who should be labelled an “occult artist” and which movements were specifically affected by occult philosophy. While it’s widely agreed that Symbolism and Surrealism had very strong links to the occult, it’s seen as a passing phase in its infancy which was weeded out once the movement became influential. I believe that a great deal of research and discussion needs to be undertaken to properly position esoteric and occult influences within the artworld and properly validate the aims of specific artists before they’re added to the category.
As far as Crowley is concerned, as was his modus operandi in all other areas, he existed outside of any accepted “tradition” yet held much of the same intent as the early Symbolists, particularly Gauguin. His method and techniques were certainly influenced by them, yet his process and ultimate end far transcended them. In many ways, when at Cefalu, Crowley solved the puzzle of art/ death/ spirit that had plagued Gauguin his whole life. He was ultimately successful in the art realm where many more revered painters had lost their way.
MOTO: The official T-shirt of the exhibition quotes one of Crowley’s sacred works, Liber ABA – “All art is magick”. This ties with a core concept in Crowley’s cosmology which collapses the boundary between the ‘mundane’ and the ‘spiritual’, declaring magick to be that which causes change in accordance with will, not simply classical ritual magic. Yet this declaration that ‘All art is magick’ is hardly a mainstream view, or indeed that of traditionalism, one of the major schools of esoteric art in the 20th century. Schuon, for example clearly delineates the difference between spiritual art (a vehicle for spiritual presences) and profane art, created solely for human consumption. What’s your take on this – is all art magical? Will the graphic design for the next Liberal party conference be a magical act? (Note for non-Australians: our Liberal Party is right wing conservative. Go figure.)
RB: Yes, that’s correct. Crowley’s artistic theory was in complete alignment with his magical view of the universe. This is one of the reasons why it’s difficult to place him within any existing artist movement, as he looked at the world very differently to many artists of his era. The Liber ABA quote “All Art is Magick” has become the motto of the show, and a way to quickly and simply explain Crowley’s artistic theory. It’s a concept which most people will agree with, and makes the premise of the exhibition immediately accessible.
I agree with Schuon’s delineation between “profane art” and “spiritual art” but disagree with his definition of “art” itself. Personally I feel that all true creative acts are magical but argue that the term, “Art” just like “Artist” is one of the most overused and abused in contemporary society. Not every painting is Art and not every person who picks up a brush can call themselves an Artist. True Art has a true intent, be it transformational, communicative or expressive. It has a deeper element in its conceptual creation which by default makes it a physical talisman for the energy present at its point of creation. You can see this across all major periods in history where the key works from great Artists have a certain, often undefinable quality. If you’ve ever seen the large scale works of Rothko, Motherwell, Blake and Basquiat in person, you’ll understand how Art can affect you.
I wouldn’t consider an IKEA ready-made photocanvas “Art” given its intent (or entire lack thereof), and argue that the definition of bad or poor art to be derived from its underlying intent. If the artist is painting to simply meet a market, it’s very obvious. If they’re creating in line with a true intent, whatever that may be, you can feel a magical act which is still happening on the canvas. This is the case with Aleister Crowley’s artwork, and during his time in Cefalu, he took the concept of intent to an entirely new level in his approach to finding the Will of the artwork itself.
Will the next graphic design for the next Liberal party conference be a magical act? Hmmm, possibly but it will take some serious magick to clean up the current political state of affairs.
MOTO: Robert, if every willed act is a magical act, then so is this exhibition. And you certainly seem to have invested a lot of time, energy and resources into making it so – there’s lectures, a magical circle and altar in the middle of the gallery, links to public performances of Crowley’s Gnostic Mass by the local Lodge of the OTO. What are you hoping to achieve magically from this exhibition and how much does it mean to you personally?
RB: Yes, the exhibition itself is designed as a talisman of sorts, and I believe it’s certainly had an effect. Like the paintings themselves, the exhibition space is part of an overall creative act which requires particular attention and design. I wanted to provide a perfect setting for the paintings themselves which was in line with the intent of their creation, and those who have noticed the little touches have appreciated it.
For me personally, this exhibition means a great deal, and pushes me to another level as a curator. In studying Crowley’s artwork, I’ve stretched my ideas about the true spiritual nature of Art, but also about spirituality itself. Crowley extended his magical philosophies to every part of his life, and there’s no reason why artistic exhibitions shouldn’t carry a similar approach. The lectures so far have been strongly attended with a range of those new and experienced in the field which is always nice. The Gnostic Mass performance is schedule for February and has been so popular the local OTO are organising a second session.
MOTO: You are a member of the Crowleyan OTO yourself, aren’t you? Can you tell us a little about this, and how it intersects with your professional and personal work in the art field?
I tend to keep my professional life apart from my personal, but this exhibition has seen a very happy and fruitful crossover. I’m a great believer that you find success by following your passion, so inevitable my obsessions will overlap at times! The local OTO community is a mix of some amazingly talented and insightful people, and the strength and warmth of the national community is something which always takes me by surprise. Having their support in this exhibition has been priceless.
MOTO: There are other paintings and works in the exhibition, modern manifestations of the magical current of Crowley, aren’t there? Can you tell us about these, and the artists – are they OTO members also?
RB: The works are created by a range of contemporary artists both inside and outside of the OTO, but all with a fascination for Crowley. The works are actually based on the only surviving record of the images which adorned Crowley’s Chamber of Nightmares, an essay by Crowley circa 1920. Written as a tourist’s introduction to the Sicilian village, it contained a catalogue of his paintings on the walls of the Abbey of Thelema. The piece remained unpublished during Crowley’s lifetime. The selection of work in this exhibition is inspired by these writings, and each artist selected a tract from the essay and re-created the images that Crowley described. The resulting exhibition has been a real highlight, and will be expanded when it opens in Sydney next year.
One of the great things about this side of the project is the chance to give artists their first commercial exhibition alongside more notables such as Barry William Hale.
MOTO: It’s a real treat to have a quality exhibition like this showing – much less open – here in Perth. Was there any reason, besides proximity to your life that you chose Perth? And where is the exhibition going next?
RB: Perth itself is a very special place spiritually with a long history of consciousness, and I felt that it was important to bring the exhibition here first. The local response has shown that this was the right decision, and hopefully it can prompt people to look further into esoteric philosophy as a whole, and increase the understanding of Crowley and Thelema. It also had the benefit that I could test the concept in my own gallery before taking it interstate.
From here the exhibition will travel to Sydney in October 2013, but in the meantime the works will be further studied and analyzed as part of the ongoing research into Crowley and esoteric art.
MOTO: And will Perth – or anywhere else in Australia – have more esoteric or magical art exhibitions from you in the future?
RB: Absolutely. I’m committed to continuing the work, and already have a handful of new esoteric exhibitions coming here over the next few years. The next major show will be an expanded version of a concept previously held in Perth called “Windows to the Sacred”. It is a group exhibition of esoteric art showcasing various approaches and periods, and will include original work by Aleister Crowley, Rosaleen Norton, Barry William Hale, and Danie Mellor. The exhibition will be held at the S.H Ervin Gallery (National Trust of Australia) in Sydney, which is one of the country’s leading public museums. This is set to be the first major museum exhibition of esoteric and occult art in Australasia to date and will open in August 2013. Further details will be announced shortly.
MOTO: Thank you again for the interview, Robert. Finally, is there any online presence of the exhibition international MOTO readers can connect with? Or merchandise to help feel the love from Perth?
RB: There is a dedicated website set up for the exhibition at www.aleistercrowley.com.au which has details of upcoming events, press and merchandise on offer.